What have we not done to live forever? My research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Every Monday for the next five weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.
We all do and make to deal with oblivion. The conceit that art can ward off death is something we’ve been wrestling with since Greco-Roman times. The Theban lyric poet Pindar didn’t crave actual immortality, but still he wanted to reach out to the limits of the possible. Horace put it more bluntly in an ode: “I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze and loftier than the Pyramids’ royal pile, one that no wasting rain, no furious north wind can destroy … I shall not altogether die.” Ovid shared that aim, boasting of how his couplets would outlive his lifetime, “so that in every time and in every place I may be celebrated throughout the world.”
All creative efforts, what the ancient Greeks called poiesis, were done with immortality in mind, whether unconsciously or not. Socrates distinguished between three main forms of poiesis. The first is sexual reproduction, which provides immortality in the sense that a genetic lineage will survive the parent’s own bodily existence. The second category of poiesis is the attainment of fame through art or heroic accomplishment, which leaves a posthumous legacy. The third, and highest, expression of poiesis, according to Socrates, is philosophical, and it occurs when our pursuit of wisdom results in an experience of the soul’s indestructibility.
Eros plays a role in this final form of poiesis, explained Socrates, by launching us into an awareness of the sacred. When love enters our life, a metaphorical ladder appears before us. Eros is an invitation to climb. On the first rung of the ladder, we see beauty in our lover. On the next rung, we find ourselves appreciating the beauty in everybody. The following step is the realization of inner beauty, of mental beauty—that a beautiful spirit is of higher desirability than a beautiful exterior. The lover then starts noticing the beauty in daily habits, in everyday surroundings, in life as it is. This in turn leads to the erotics of wisdom, an ascent that grants an inner vision of ultimate beauty, the breathtaking form of beauty itself: the limitless ocean of beauty. It is beyond time, Socrates said, eternal and uncreated, an everlasting loveliness from which all other manifestations of beauty stem. Those witnessing the final object of all seeing cannot remain mere watchers.
This erotic experience of immortality is so powerful that it reduces the fear of death to pointlessness. On the final day of his life, shortly before downing the hemlock, Socrates spoke of how fearing death is merely the pretence of knowing the unknown, of thinking we understand something incomprehensible. Whatever is of this life, he argued, must necessarily not be of death’s realm—so if we can imagine it, it won’t be like that. Whatever it will be, if indeed it will be anything at all, is different than whatever we can envision.
All classical Western thinkers attempted to rationalize death in their own ways, to dispel uncertainty through the powers of philosophy. Pythagorus, for example, believed in transmigration. Despite being a vegetarian, he counseled against eating beans as they can contain human souls reincarnated in leguminous form. The Sicilian contrarian Empedocles leapt into an active volcano to prove that immortality is real. He was never seen again, but his name lives on in perpetuity.
No consensus was reached. Aristotle considered our active intelligence to be a divine spark within the brain that returns to God when our bodies die. “It is this alone that is immortal and eternal,” he wrote in De Anima. Epicurus, on the other hand, taught that death simply means the end of consciousness. “While we exist death is not present, and when death is present we no longer exist. It is therefore nothing either to the living or to the dead since it is not present to the living, and the dead no longer are.” Everything good and bad is related to sensation, he added, and all sensation ends at death, so there’s nothing good or bad to come, meaning we should just get on with it.
The fifth-century philosopher Parmenides bequeathed us a single, extraordinary poem, “On Nature.” It recounts his journey to the heart of the universe where he meets a goddess who introduces him to something not of this world: logic. The truth is, she explains, nothingness does not exist: “That which is cannot not be.” In other words, if you exist, you cannot not exist. Therefore, the human soul will necessarily endure indefinitely. Logic begins as demonstrative proof of spiritual immortality.
At that time, in general thought, the fact of being alive was like being in a state of wetness. Young people were described as “abounding in liquid.” As they aged, the moisture dried up. Death was waterlessness. The expression “during one’s water” referred to one’s allotted life span. In classical antiquity, “life is liquid, and the dead are dry,” notes Richard B. Onians’s The Origins of European Thought. Dead bodies were called “the thirsty.” Parched souls ended up beyond all wavecrash, in “the dry country.” Homer spoke of returning to a place where oceans are unknown.
The mystery cults distinguished between two forms of existence: bios and zoe. Bios is the life of the flesh, as in biography, the story of a life, or biology, the study of what we can know about life. Bios is finite. Zoe, on the other hand, is endless, indestructible, ongoing. Zoe is “nondeath,” untouched by mortality. We all die, but the mysteries assured us that a part of our soul life lives on. The zoe continues after the bios ends. Zoe is the necklace upon which each gemlike bios hangs.
At the mystery schools, aspirants were initiated into the basics of eternal life. Although we don’t know exactly what happened at those rites (divulging the mysteries was punishable by death), it is clear that worshippers died symbolically, and were then reborn with assurances about immortality to come. In tasting death, they momentarily became one with the gods. This apotheosis brought a foretaste of the afterlife, proof of the indestructibility of the soul, the profound certainty that dying begets new life. The mystai came to see the end as just another beginning.
A necessarily vague description of the initiatory process is recounted in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, the only Latin-language novel that has survived in its entirety. Apuleius, a priest of Asklepios and an initiate into the temple of Isis, knew that the ineffable mysteries of the goddess are never to be divulged. In his writing, however, he tells us as much as was lawfully permitted for the uninitiated:
I approached the very gates of death and set one foot on Proserpina’s threshold, yet was permitted to return, rapt through all the elements. At midnight I saw the sun shining as if it were noon; I entered the presence of the gods of the under-world and the gods of the upper-world, stood near and worshipped them.
Well, now you have heard what happened, but I fear you are still none the wiser.
Adam Leith Gollner’s The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever (Scribner) is out now.